Leading Israeli writer David Grossman is this year's recipient of the prestigious Erasmus Prize, which is conferred annually to an individual or institution for "an exceptional contribution to the humanities, the social sciences or the arts." Grossman was presented with the prize, which includes a 150,000 euro cash award, on Tuesday at the Royal Palace in Amsterdam by the Dutch monarch, King Willem-Alexander.
The theme of this year's prize, which was established in 1958, was "mending a torn world," derived from the Jewish concept of tikkun olam. "In the wide field of literature, no one embodies this theme more than Grossman. In his work he seeks to understand people from within, and to regard the other with love, transcending borders of war and history," the citation issued by the prize foundation stated.
"He has demonstrated extraordinary courage in tackling uncomfortable political subjects, among them daily life in occupied territories and the Palestinian minority in Israel, as well as themes such as friendship, living with the past, and the bonds that link generations. In his writing, Grossman connects the personal and the universal," the prize foundation stated.
The Erasmus Prize award ceremony, which included a short film on Grossman's life, concluded with the writer's acceptance speech, in which he alluded to the prize's namesake, the 16th century Dutch philosopher Erasmus of Rotterdam, and the prize theme "mending a torn world."
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"This term originates in an ancient Jewish notion conceived over 2,000 years ago. I do not know whether Erasmus of Rotterdam knew of it, but there is no doubt that the concept guided his way of life and mode of thinking. 'Mending the World' describes a fundamental component of Jewish identity: an aspiration and obligation to improve our world; a sense of moral responsibility toward all people, whether Jewish or not; and a concern for social justice and even the environment," Grossman said.
"I am an absolutely secular man. I cannot believe in a God who would help me face the chaos of existence. And yet, writing has shown me the way – I’ll call it the secular way – to have a horrifying sense of nothingness, of diving into loss and the total negation of life, while simultaneously experiencing a keen sense of vitality, of the fullness and positivity of life," Grossman said.
Grossman's son, Staff Sgt. Uri Grossman, was killed in combat in the 2006 Second Lebanon War when his tank was struck by an anti-tank missile. The writer noted his son's death in his acceptance speech.
"Even after the tragedy that struck my family when we lost our son, Uri, in the war, I learned that what allows me to withstand this duality of absence and presence – which to me is the essence of human existence – is to be immersed in the act of creation, of art."
"Writing has brought me great happiness, much like the happiness I feel here today, with you," Grossman told his audience.
"If only I could say that the results of the recent Israeli election express these sort of humanistic, egalitarian, moral stances. They do not," he said, referring to an election that is shortly expected to usher in the most right-wing government in Israel's history.
"Nevertheless, I remind myself again and again that there are still many people in Israel for whom despair is not an option. For whom apathy or escapism are luxuries they cannot afford and do not want. We are still here. Our parties might have lost, but our values and beliefs were not defeated, and they are more crucial than ever before."